Gay heaven for some, liberal paradise for everyone - the golden city on America’s west coast is an evergreen travel destination constantly being rediscovered.
“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attraction of the next world.” So said Oscar Wilde, over a century ago - and it’s fair to say the city has lost none of its intrigue in the interim. A classic American city with a distinctly European feel, San Francisco is perched on the continent’s edge; a foggy, muggy peninsula forever anticipating its next big earthquake. Needless to say, it’s a city for adventurers.
At just 49 square miles, there’s a small town feel, where you may well see the same face twice in one day; from the shopping district of Union Square, to the tourist friendly Fisherman’s Wharf. But with an average of 16 million visitors annually, it sees its fair share of turnover, and it remains a top, must visit destination for the gay traveller.
San Francisco traces its history as a gay mecca back to World War II, when the U.S. military discharged many homosexual servicem
en, almost 10,000 of whom were processed out in the already famously liberal city. Other gay men and women from across the country continued to flock there in the 50s and 60s, congregating in the immigrant heavy Castro area. San Francisco saw some of the first victims of HIV and AIDS, and its gay community was devastated by the disease throughout the 1980s. Today the city’s LGBT community makes up an estimated 15% of its population.
Indulging in the gay scene requires little more than a stroll through the Castro – perhaps the world’s ultimate gay district - where you’ll easily find dozens of bars, community spots like The LGBT Center,
and the high flying Rainbow Flag – which made its first appearance here in 1978. It is worth noting that for those who like to party later (and harder), the Castro shuts shop at a respectable hour, and you’re more likely to get your fix at the warehouse clubs and parties in the SoMa district downtown. sanfrancisco.travel/lgbt
If you want to take a trip down memory lane, there are many tributes to Harvey Milk – the legendary gay rights activist who became San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official in 1977 before being assassinated the following year. The glorious domed City Hall
building where he worked and died is worth a visit (Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were also married here in 1954). Around the Castro you can find Harvey Milk Plaza, as well as a library, and a Center for the Arts bearing his name. His story also takes pride of place at the GLBT History Museum
– the first of its kind in the U.S. – which offers a multimedia display of the city’s queer history, culminating with a display of the suit Milk was wearing when he was killed. glbthistorymuseum.org
Finding somewhere to lay your head down in San Francisco isn’t difficult, and thanks to a great selection of boutique hotels, finding an affordable spot that suits you personally is easy too. If you’re going for a gay old time, look no further than Hotel Mark Twain (below). Dedicated to the great American novelist who laid his tracks in the city in the 1860s, it offers special discounts to visiting bears and drag queens. And for the rest of us? Its 2014 renovation produced a TechBar, a private outdoor sanctuary and some excellent branding; from Twain quotes on the walls, to his trademark moustache on the back of your room key. There are also nods to Billie Holiday, whose was arrested for heroin possession there in 1949. hotelmarktwain.com
Film buffs will relish the Hotel Vertigo
(below), which is modelled on – and built on the site of - the hotel featured in Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo
; only the greatest film of all time (send your objections to the BFI). The movie plays on a loop in the lobby, and the spirals of Hitchcock’s artwork repeat throughout the hotel - not to mention the meticulously persistent white and orange colour scheme. A perfect complement to the dizziness induced by the city’s hilly landscape. hotelvertigosf.com
If you’re indulging a little on your trip, luxury doesn’t come much better than the Mandarin Oriental
(below) – the brand’s North American flagship. It’s the only hotel in the city that offers a spa matching the hotel’s five star rating - so you can enjoy the height of pampering, in the height of the second tallest building in the whole city. The view is unimpeded, and spectacular from every single room. mandarinoriental.com/sanfrancisco
San Francisco is a great city for sightseeing, where most of the big attractions don’t involve much money, but rather a fair bit of walking. On the way to Fisherman’s Wharf you can take in the landmark Coit Tower
and Lombard Street
– the most crooked street in the world, which packs in eight hairpin turns on one of the city’s steep hills. From the piers at Fisherman’s Wharf
it’s easy to rent bikes and cycle around the edge of the city – through parks and a Civil War fort - to approach the Golden Gate Bridge
from a great view point.
If you’re up for the 1.7 mile walk across, it offers great views, but be warned - there’s not much on the other side.
Just over a mile from the edge of San Francisco sits one of the world’s most notorious prisons – Alcatraz
(left) – which housed America’s most dangerous criminals from 1934 to 1963. Now one of the city’s top tourist attractions, ferries leave the city every 30 minutes, and the island offers a top view of the city from across the water. alcatrazcruises.com
If touristy experiences are your thing, it may be worth investing in the CityPASS
. Retailing at $84 with a value of $148.90, it offers entry to the California
Academy of Sciences, the Aquarium, the Exploratorium and the Bay cruise experience, plus unlimited seven day use of the famous cable cars
– one of the city’s most recognisable institutions since their inception in 1873. citypass.com
Something of a hidden gem in the city is the relatively new Walt Disney Family Museum
(right), located in The Presidio. Created by the daughter of Walt Disney, you could spend hours following a timeline through 17 rooms which document his entire life and work; from the earliest sketches of Mickey Mouse, to the small scale original plan for Disneyland, to his full set of Academy Awards. You don’t even have to release your inner child to appreciate the genius of this true American original. waltdisney.org
San Francisco is internationally renowned for its cuisine: a unique blend of the immigrant groups who have laid their roots in the town, mixed with the best of America, and the seafood delights that come with having almost 30 miles of shoreline. Where you choose to dine depends on where you stay - or where you’ve found yourself after a long day out and about - but wherever you end up, there’s a bit of everything.
(left) is an upscale dining experience evoking the ambience of French colonial Vietnam, with celebrated cocktails thrown in for good measure. The appetiser platter is the best way to experience the best of what they have, and is a treat to share on the table, but the duck is the best main course. lecolonialsf.com
offers food from Spain’s Basque region with a West Coast twist, in the quieter surrounds of Telegraph Hill, where you’re dining with locals rather than tourists. Their speciality is Serrano ham with poached egg, but the steak is also divine. piperade.com
If you’re not lunching on the go, consider booking Urban Tavern
, an ‘American gastropub’ just a stone’s throw from Union Square with delicious single, double and even triple mouth watering burgers. Location wise, it’s also perfect for a breather if you’re shopping nearby on Market Street. urbantavernsf.com
My ultimate recommendation is for La Mar Cebicheria Peruana
(below), a Peruvian seafood restaurant with a beautiful waterfront location. A vast dining room with an outdoor patio is accompanied by an open kitchen area, and a bar with a standout program of alternative cocktails. From the finest calamari and shrimp, to crab and octopus, there’s nothing you can’t indulge in, plus the presentation and service are first class. Also, as it’s located at Pier 1.5, you can take in the Ferry Building, a beautiful turn of the century piece which survived the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989. lamarsf.com
Whatever your choice of food, be sure to try the rich selection of California wines when you’re there – particularly those from the Napa Valley
, which is just an hour north of the city for any connoisseurs who fancy a day trip. visitnapavalley.com
SF IN POP CULTURE
Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin’s must read books about a cast of characters in San Francisco span from the 1970s to present day. The latest instalment, The Days of Anna Madrigal
, has just been published.
Dustin Lance Black’s Oscar winning biopic of San Francisco politician and legendary gay rights activist Harvey Milk is a landmark gay film, starring Sean Penn and James Franco. Obviously.
We Were Here
This documentary captures the story of how AIDS first hit in the city of sexual freedom, and destroyed a generation of trailblazing gay men. An essential, educational watch.
Modern gay life in the city is showcased brilliantly in HBO’s Andrew Haigh directed TV series, starring Jonathan Groff as a hapless romantic in the hipster haven. Season 2 airs on Sky Atlantic this month.
With special thanks to San Francisco Travel. Visit sanfrancisco.travel.